The biggest ‘what’ in marketing circles for the last 15 years (ever since everybody did the math, had a collective epiphany and realised that the average age of an Indian in 2020 would be 29 years) is ‘what does Indian Youth want?’ Countless, extremely expensive, studies and surveys have been commissioned to shed light on this mystery. The result, based on the ads we get to see on television, clearly seem to reveal that all the youth of the country want to do is grow facial hair, wear slouchy clothing, swear a lot, rate friends higher than family, go online incessantly, take clever ‘shortcuts,’ sing catchy jingles and drink their cold drinks in a way that simulates oral sex.
Is that really how deep it goes?
Of course not.
But marketing folk, bless them, are just trying to sell a product. Theirs not to stir the scum at the bottom of a lucrative lily-pond. Addressing issues like unemployment, marginalisation, oppression, corruption and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness is not their job, they’ve decided. And maybe even rightly so.
Are they turning a blind eye to the fact that some of the world’s best and most successful ad campaigns have been ones that engaged with the consumer instead of merely agreeing with him, the ones that challenged his imagination, stirred his heart and ignited his conscience? Perhaps.
But ‘going a little deeper’ in Indian advertising today, it is fraught with all kinds of dangers — rattling the cages of fundamentalists of all denominations, inviting reactions from the ministry of environment or consumer courts, or even alienating a section of the very youth audience you’re hoping to appeal to, by the stench of opportunism and commerce you can’t help exuding.
And so marketers feel it’s far better to keep your head down and say vaguely angsty things like ‘youth is impatient’, ‘youth is irreverent’ and ‘chalo apni chaal’ while actually running variations of the same ol’ boy-gets-girl, girl-gets-boy or girl/boy-outsmart-somebody older/richer/better-looking formula. It’s getting so that the ads are all starting to look (even for ads!) weirdly disconnected from real life.
But I’m not sure how long anybody who wants to bond with the youth at a sustained level can continue to ignore the fact that our country is in the midst of a total moral, material and spiritual crisis. We’ve come a long way from the good old days when we celebrated Shah Rukh Khan’s pacifist DDLJ act as the complete anti-thesis of Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man portrayals of the ’70s.
We’ve come a long way from even three years ago, when things were so much better, no matter where you are placed up and down the socio-economic ladder. The economy was booming, the stories of Sabeer Bhatia and Laxmi Mittal were everywhere, Dhoni had won us the World Cup.
Since then, scam after scam has shaken the nation, horrific crimes against women have been committed, too many role models have turned out to have feet of clay, most recently boxer Vijender Singh and internationally, Lance Armstrong. The movers and shakers whose images the media feeds us so faithfully everyday are all neither black nor white but decidedly ‘grey’, with achievements that are all tainted in some way — from self-proclaimed, pony-tailed messiahs who own suspect MBA schools, to fixer cricketers, to tycoons who owe the nation millions but still launch swimsuit calendars, to politicians who flourish either because of their surnames or because of their doctrines of hate, to movie stars who squabble with the police or have multiple cases filed against them in courts across the land.
The Youth of today has no clean role models they can venerate. Theirs is a generation that has grown up in truly morally ambiguous times. Spoilt children of small nuclear families, they have a strong sense of entitlement and a spiritual vacuum where their grandmothers’ stories ought to be. Creatures of social media and reality TV, they also have a flair for drama, of performing to an audience, of being ‘on stage’ all the time. So they’re reading Amish’s Shiva Trilogy, posting self-righteous updates about ‘corruption and all’ on their FB pages, imbibing the anything-goes-as-long-as-you-don’t-get-caught ideology and sullenly coming to terms with the fact that life is not an episode of ‘How I met your mother.’ All at the same time.
They’re pretty confused.
We tend to think of our ‘youth bulge’ as an asset, but if we can’t provide our young ones employment and health or guarantee their safety and liberty, we could very soon have 706 million, marginalised, restless and angry young people on our hands. The largest any nation has ever had to handle in human history. The economic, political and social price we could have to pay is huge.
So how does this affect marketing and advertising? I think it’s time they realised that the days of skimming the surface, of writing happy, clappy jingles, of shooting shiny, clean images and pushing the boy-meets-girl storyline are numbered. The angry young man (or rather men, because the youth today tend to hunt in packs and har ek friend zaroori hota hai) is poised for a comeback. Only this time, he lacks a moral compass.
Ambitious, far-thinking brand-builders should try to provide this compass. It could be the best way to catch the pulse of the times, create a better society and earn a place for themselves, not just in the wallets, but also in the heart of the nation.
Anuja Chauhan is a bestselling author, screenwriter and advertising professional
The views expressed by the author are personal